Sunday, November 16, 2014

Outstanding Nonfiction Books Written By Women

As I looked at my latest library book sitting on the kitchen table, I was surprised by the author’s name:
– Beth Macy – 

Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Townwas written by a woman.

Despite going out of my way to read mostly nonfiction books written by women for the past several years, I find it interesting that a business book authored by a woman is still enough of an anomaly to cause me to pause.

In light of the perceived/actual shortage of nonfiction books written by women (that don't come with a purse or a shoe on its pink cover), I’ve decided to share a few of my favorite nonfiction books written by woman:

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc:
In addition to being one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read written by a woman, this is also one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. This moving and powerful account of two girls coming of age in the South Bronx has changed my understanding of how the circumstances into which you are born affects your economic future. Here is my original discussion of the book where I ask if it is possible to change the course of a young girl's life.

Special Exits by Joyce Farmer
This book written in comic form is considered a fictionalized memoir, but since it is based on Farmer’s real life experience taking care of her elderly parents as their health declined I am including it here. When I originally read it, I was reminded of my husband’s parents as he and his sister managed their care in their later years. Now as I attempt to care for my own mother I am again reminded of this book. I wrote about it here.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Lifeby Anne Lamont
I’ve read other books on writing: Steven King’s On Writing and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want To Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, this book is so much more than a book on writing. It is a memoir Lamott wrote based on lessons she learned over the years working as a writer and teacher of a writing class. She provides advice on the craft of writing as well as humorous antidotes about life especially the life of a writer. Her chapter on jealousy is outstanding.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Culturesby Anne Fadiman
This book, the story of a Hmong girl with epilepsy and the conflict between the Hmong community and Western medical personnel, is narrative nonfiction at its best. Fadiman explores in detail what can go wrong with cultural assumptions and misunderstandings.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
This one follows the stories of six "ordinary" North Koreans who defect to South Korea beginning in the late 1990s. It is another eye-opening book – what living in North Korea may actually be like. Here I include an excerpt from the book in my post about making a mistake at work.

Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie
Coco Chanel covered up much of her past and told enormous lies about her life. What I love about this book is Picardie sorted through personal observations and interviews with surviving friends, employees and relatives; Chanel’s abandoned memoirs and tabloid rumors to uncover the truth and give us an accurate portrayal of Coco Chanel’s life.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Leadby Sheryl Sandberg
This book has its faults, but I’m including it here because it has inspired so many women to begin talking and thinking about their career choices: leaning in and opting out.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
This book has its faults too. It is long and repetitive and like Lean-In is written from a white middle-class perspective, but this is the book that reignited the feminist movement. Plus, it helped me realize how much influence advertisements had on women’s lives – so much so they abandoned their careers to buy the latest carpet sweeper.

I know there are many more outstanding nonfiction books written by women. What are your favorites?

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

My Favorite Nonfiction Reads of the Year

This week’s question for Nonfiction November asks:

Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

My favorite nonfiction read of the year:

Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book The Shadow of the Sun. Kapuscinski worked as a news correspondent for a Poland paper for over 40 years.  This book is a collection of essays where he shares his observations from several of the African countries he visited.  I learnt more about Africa, its climate, politics, history, culture, economy and people from this book than in any other book I’ve read. I also enjoyed Kupuscincki’s writing and hope to read more of his books in the future.


The book I quote most often:

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancerby Siddhartha Mukherjee.  This book is the book I mention most often in conversation.  It is incredibly comprehensive and discusses many different cancers, treatments, causes and related diseases.  I can’t help but be reminded of it when these topics come up in conversation.

The book that gave me biggest aha moment:

Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfectionby Debora Spar. While reading this book I realized how my life was influenced by those perfume commercials of the 70’s that led me to believe women (I) could have it all. 

The book that was the most therapeutic:

Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendshipby Gail Caldwell which I wrote about here.

The best story:
Undress Me in the Temple of Heavenby Susan Jane Gilman was my biggest page-turner.  In this honest memoir Gilman writes about her 1986 backpacking trip to China with former college classmate Claire.  Her experience in pre-Tiananmen Square massacre China along with Claire’s story and the people they encounter is fascinating.  It is interesting to note she and Claire for the most part were treated with incredible kindness and hospitality by the Chinese people while they acted like spoiled brats, were rude and at times down-right mean.  

My favorite nonfiction books are those that help me better understand the world or books where I am motivated to pull out my notebook and begin taking copious notes. To be honest, I haven’t read many of these types of books lately and hope to discover a few new titles to add to my reading list this month.  I’m also looking forward to participating in the read-a-longs and book discussions.    

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

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Sunday, November 02, 2014

Nonfiction November Reading Goals

Since I am a huge fan of nonfiction I am excited to participate in Nonfiction November (A month long event hosted by Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness, Leslie of Regular Rumination, Becca of Lost in Books and Katie of Doing Dewey) created to celebrate Nonfiction. I’ve made a pretty aggressive list of goals for myself, but with the Thanksgiving Holiday coming up I’m hoping to squeeze in more reading than usual.

Three of the books on my reading list will count towards my Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge – for my challenge I plan to read 50 nonfiction books from 50 different countries over the next 5 years.

Here are my goals for Nonfiction November:

Co-host Waiting for Snow in Havana read-a-long:
I am pairing up with Tanya of Mom's Small Victories to read Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boyby Carlos Eire. Triggered by the Elian Gonzales affair Carlos Eire, one of the 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba in 1962 – exiled from his family, his country and his own childhood by the revolution wrote a memoir about his childhood. This book, a national book award winner, is exquisitely written and paints a picture of pre-revolutionary Cuba you won’t forget anytime soon. Tanya and I will be posting questions about the book throughout the month and hopefully a twitter chat at the end, so please join us for this casual read-a-long.

Participate in Becca and Katie's read-a-long for Cleopatra: A Lifeby Stacy Schiff:
This book has been on my reading list for a while. What better way to read it than with a read-a-long.

Finish A Heart for Freedom: The Remarkable Journey of a Young Dissident, Her Daring Escape, and Her Quest to Free China's Daughtersby Chai Ling:
This book recommended to me by Create With Joy is the memoir of Chai Ling one of the leaders of the 1989 hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. I started this book in October and hope to finish it this month.

Begin reading Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Townby Beth Macy:
I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy a good business book. This book is about John Bassett III, a third generation factory man, who decides to fight back against China to keep his furniture factory in the U.S. This one came in at the library a little earlier than I anticipated. I doubt I’ll finish it in November, but do hope to read a few chapters before I have to return it.

What is on your November reading list? 

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

An Insider’s Look into the Scholarship Selection Process: See My Guest Post....

I have been a member of my professional organization’s scholarship committee for the past 4 years. I share the process we use to select a scholarship recipient and a few insider tips over in a guest post on Femme Frugality's site.  The competition may not be what you think.

Friday, October 24, 2014

How to Maximize Your Mentor Relationships By Femme Frugality

I'd like to welcome Femme of Femme Frugality as my guest poster today. Femme is a personal finance blogger who writes about money saving for students, brides, parents and Pittsburghers. She  shares how she maximizes her mentor relationships for greater career success:  

I work in a field where mentorship is not only highly valued, but an essential part of your career path.  Without it you never learn the ins and outs, you never learn the skills you need to succeed in your field, and you never build the connections needed to land employment.  Over the course of my career I have had mentors come in many forms:  boss, peer, professor, and, of course, the traditional role of a designated mentor where their entire goal was to work with me to better prepare me for the next step in my career.

Through all of this, I’ve learned some major lessons about the best ways to maximize the benefits of your relationship from the mentee’s side.

Learn to Love Feedback
Feedback is the biggest and most obvious benefit of having a mentor.  Learn to love it!  It can be uncomfortable to hear you faults and inadequacies, but the entire reason your mentor is there is to help you grow and improve.  That is impossible if you are not receptive to their feedback.  Don’t get defensive.  Don’t break down and cry.  Recognize that they want you to succeed, and that the best way for them to help you do that is to correct your mistakes.

You know you have a great mentor when you’re hearing positive feedback from them, as well.  There will be things you’re doing right, and they will recognize them.  Recognize it in yourself, and allow it to build confidence, but not to the point of arrogance.

Constantly Be Improving Yourself

If you get all that feedback, and then do nothing with it, you’re wasting everyone’s time.  Practice the skill during your off hours, even if it’s something as simple as how to handle specific conversations.  One thing I’ve tried to do over my career is seek out workshops that target my areas of weakness, and attend every last one of them.  One of my first bosses told me it was why they sent me out on difficult assignments.  “I see you going to all these workshops, trying to improve yourself as much as you can.  You’re new, but I’d rather send out someone new who’s trying to get better every day than someone with decades of experience who’s been treading in muddy water all these years.”

That was powerful to me, and has helped me never become complacent about where I stand.  In twenty years you’ll still see me continuing my education, because there is always, always, always something you can be learning and improving.

Build Personal Relationships

It’s good to be professional, but build a personal relationship with your mentor within that context.  You’re likely spending a lot of time together if you’re getting feedback about your performance, so there should be plenty of time to ask about their weekend, the kids, the wife, hobbies, etc.  I’m not suggesting you become a creeper, but have conversations that real people would have with each other.  Not only will it help build your bond and trust with each other, but that bond and trust will help you later down the line as you need references and networking.  Your mentor can become one of the most important connections in your career.  Build a positive relationship now so that you’re not just begging for a favor down the line.

Keep In Touch

If you do need a favor down the line, you’re going to have to be able to reach them.  I’ve lived a fairly transient life, and while I’ve kept in touch with a majority of my mentors, there is one that I regrettably did not.  Life got really busy for the both of us.  People moved, phone numbers changed, emails got lost in the shuffle.  I regret this professionally, but also on a personal level as I really valued that personal relationship we had built.

When you are keeping in touch, don’t just contact them when you need something.  Keep them updated when you reach professional milestones, being sure to thank them for their huge contribution to your career.  When something new happens in your industry, ask them their opinion on it.  When you’re wondering how they’re doing in general, shoot them an email asking them just that.  Don’t flood their inbox, but be in touch often enough that they remember you exist, and that they know you remember them and all they have done for you.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions

During your mentorship, don’t be afraid to ask questions.  It’s why you’re there.  If something comes up that makes your scratch your head, or a situation arises that makes you question ethical bounds, be sure to get their advice. 

After your mentorship concludes, don’t be afraid to ask questions.  Things come up in everyone’s profession that will make them think twice about an upcoming decision or recent reaction.  Going to them when these things happen will not only benefit you via their advice.  It will show them you view them as an expert, worth drawing knowledge from even after the conclusion of your formal mentorship.  It’s also a good way to keep the lines of communication open, keeping in touch.

In a nutshell, everything I’ve learned has come down to total humility, a good work ethic, and building and maintaining relationships.  Be eager for feedback, even when it’s “negative.”  Use it to identify areas where you can actively improve, and then go do the things you need to do in order to make those improvements.  Ask questions when you don’t know the answers, and build a strong enough relationship that it will last for the long haul.  I’ve been so lucky to have such great mentors; I truly consider them some of the best people I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life, in any capacity.  And I feel so lucky that these relationships have turned into something deeper: friendships built on professionalism and respect.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell

Motivation for reading:

A few months ago Jessica Smock co-editor of The HerStories Project: Women Explore the Joy, Pain, and Power of Female Friendshipand My Other Ex: Women's True Stories of Losing and Leaving Friends recommended Gail Caldwell’s book Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendshipin response to my query for a list of her favorite nonfiction books covering friendship.*

What is Let's Take the Long Way Homeabout?

In my post Recovering From the Loss of a Friendship I wrote about reading the book My Other Exwhich was about friendship breakups. This book is also about friendship loss but from losing a friend through the worst possible scenarios – death. Here is the first sentence in the book:
It's an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.
Synopsis from Amazon: 
They met over their dogs. Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp (author of Drinking: A Love Story) became best friends, talking about everything from their love of books and their shared history of a struggle with alcohol to their relationships with men. Walking the woods of New England and rowing on the Charles River, these two private, self-reliant women created an attachment more profound than either of them could ever have foreseen. Then, several years into this remarkable connection, Knapp was diagnosed with cancer.

My thoughts:
I read this book while on a much needed vacation. As I sat outside my rented cabin, I held this book in one hand while keeping my journal nearby. While reading, I took frequent breaks to write and reflect in my journal on my life, my experiences with my own friends and on grief. Here are some of the passages that led to greater contemplation:
I also had my first sense of something central about Caroline that would become a pillar of our friendship. When she was confronted with any emotional difficulty, however slight or major, her response was to approach rather than to flee. There she would stay until the matter was resolved, and the emotional aftermath was free of any hangover or recrimination. My instincts toward resolution were similar: I knew that silence and distance were far more pernicious than head-on engagement. This compatibility helped ensure that there was no unclaimed baggage between us in the years to come. (Pg. 28)
As an ISFJ, I am incredibly conflict adverse, so in most conflict situations with friends, family and co-workers I tend to flee or shut down rather than to approach. In the few situations I have approached I was always rewarded with greater understanding and a better relationship in the long-run.
It's taken years for me to understand that dying doesn't end the story; it transforms it. Edits, rewrites, the blur, and epiphany of one-way dialogue. Most of us wander in and out of one another's lives until not death, but distance, does us part-- time and space and heart's weariness are the blander executioners or human connection. (Pg. 123)
Suffering is what changes the endgame, changes death’s mantle from black to white. It is a badly lit corridor outside of time, a place of crushing weariness, the only thing large enough to bully you into holding the door for death. (Pg. 143)
Then I realized something else they don’t tell you in the instruction books for mourning: that we only fret about the living. I might well grieve Caroline for all my days, but I wasn’t worried about her anymore. (Pg. 174)
The real trick is to let life, with all its ordinary missteps and regrets be consistently more mysterious and alluring than its end. (Pg. 180)
Bottom line:
This book fed my soul more than any book I’ve read this year, so I was surprised to learn other reviewers on goodreads did not care for it. They felt Caldwell spent too much time writing about her own life, her own alcoholism and her dog and not enough about her friendship with Caroline. Perhaps it is because I can relate to both Carolyn and Gail; I am also an introvert, married late, have a former roommate who is an alcoholic and became a dog owner later in life that I loved this book just the way it is. Or perhaps this book came along at a time when I needed to do some soul searching of my own. All and all I enjoyed it and hope to read more of Caldwell’s books.

*Other friendship books recommended by Jessica Smock:

She Matters: A Life in Friendshipsby Susanna Sonnenburg

The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendshipsby Kelly Valen

Friendshipby Emily Gould. This one is fiction, but is about workplace interactions and friendship, as well as career choices and writing. (Hmm... I might make this one a future book club selection)

Have you read Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell? If so what were your thoughts? Do you have a favorite book about friendship?

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